by - 11:49

Archer Recap: An Idiot’s Prison Break

In last week’s recap, I voiced some concerns over the pace this season has parceled out information pertaining to its long-game plot. It’s unsatisfying to leave an episode with nothing more than a desire for answers, a result of an overly stingy mystery not yet quite finished dotting its big question marks. I had issued a call for some forward motion, and the kind gods of the Archer writers’ room have answered in booming tones: Ask for narrative propulsion and you shall receive.

Things happen and questions get answered in “Jane Doe,” but as in any good sleuthing noir story, the revelations mostly expose the full enormity of how much remains unknown. We learn the true nature of Poovey’s fleetingly referenced houseguests — she’s taken in Trexler’s harem of smuggled Chinese prostitutes as something between domestic help and a surrogate family. The episode doesn’t wait until next week to pull back the curtain on Figgis’s short-grift on the Van Der Tunt family, as he helpfully explains his entire scheme out loud. Both of these developments, funny enough on their own, keep “Jane Doe” lively after the slight stall of “Berenice.” Consider this response less as a demand for instant gratification than relief at renewed direction — while last week’s episode was a harebrained goose chase around town with a body in the trunk, this one moves with purpose.

Even as the ongoing tensions between Mother and Len Trexler simmer and multiply, Archer still finds space in the script to introduce and complete a self-contained plot, smoothly negotiating serialized and episodic storytelling. It’s to this episode’s great fortune that the farcical prison break undertaken by Archer, Van Der Tunt, and their new jazz-cat buddies (the term being used loosely) also happens to be an absolute riot. Wyatt Cenac, Keegan-Michael Key, and The Wire’s Wendell Pierce guest-star as a perfectly-cast trio of backing musicians for Lana the jazz singer, shipped off to the hoosegow along with Ray on a trumped-up drug charge. Archer has always recognized the agency of single-episode characters to pretty much do nothing but deliver punch lines before excusing themselves in a timely manner, and the eternally had-it jazz cats get a laugh with nearly every bit of dialogue. Isolating one line in particular fails to account for how smoothly the trio plays off one another, but it doesn’t get much better than responding to Archer’s incredulous query about why anyone would want to rent a mule with the deadpan, “Maybe you’re afraid of commitment.”

Better still, the not-so-great escape offers Archer the chance to get topical via another deep-dive into esoterica. Much in the same way that exhaustively cataloguing the CIA’s shadier operations in last year’s “Liquid Lunch” doubled as a pointed critique of America’s covert dabbling in foreign situations, a surprisingly nuanced discussion of the history of segregated service provides a heated commentary on racial iniquity. Archer’s strategy of saying something racist, trying to backpedal, and then minimizing the effect of his words by suggesting something even worse he could have said is as illuminating as it is painful, outmatched only by Cenac’s stunned, “Words. Fail me.” Archer’s failure to even establish a civil language of discourse with the men transports the uncomfortable tensions of today back to the 1940s with nothing lost in translation.

Even better, their flight from the clink integrates the other characters in a natural, wholly entertaining way. Ray’s recurring lack of chillness when sharing a “marijuana cigarette” with the other guys in the band makes for a sublime running joke, but moreover, familiar characters have gotten the leeway to play against type through their post-war iterations. We’re starting to see how the Dreamland representations of characters have forked off from the nature of their original selves: While it initially seemed that Figgis had only conceded to dirty work out of cowardice and fear of Trexler, it turns out he’s far more sinister and actively villainous than the milquetoast former comptroller. He takes the initiative of kidnapping and attempting to ransom Van Der Tunt, proving that the motivating factor behind his wrongdoing is malevolence rather than classically Cyrillian wussiness. We see an uncommonly graceless side of Lana, too, as she launches the shortest, most disastrous career in stand-up that the world up until that point had ever witnessed. Her syphilis material falls flat with her audience but kills with us viewers at home, and it’s a humorous change-up to see Lana as anything other than hypercompetent and exasperated with everyone else’s foolishness.

This half-hour is Archer as it should be, simultaneously proving it could be more. As the writers assemble what could be their most densely plotted season yet, they carve out ample space for a satisfying open-and-shut plot among the overarching conspiracies and double-crossings. Funny, intricate, skillful in its deployment of cameos, and ruthlessly tactical in its placement of jokes, it’s a bright omen for the rest of the show’s tenure in Dreamland. The only direction left for Archer to go with his investigation is down, burrowing further into the rabbit hole of corruption and sin. And, of course, nothing’s funnier than moral compromise.

Assorted Notes and Questions

• Robert William Stewart is indeed recognized as the first African-American policeman in the history of the nation, hired along with Roy Green (the descendants of whom will soon be sending strongly worded letters to the Archer staff) by the LAPD in 1886.

• When Ray mentions that he flunked right out of his induction exam for the Army during the WWII draft, one of his bandmates tosses off, “You put the ‘F’ in 4F,” a reference to the Selective Service classification code indicating that a recruit is unfit to serve due to a failure to meet the “physical, mental, or moral standards” of duty. (The vague parameters of which were used to weed out homosexuals without being forthright about it.) Of course, this is a shot at Ray’s queeny manner, though it’s unclear what the “F” is supposed to stand for. The other F-word? Yikes.

• Ray is inordinately proud of the hilarious fake name he gave the cops, like Phil McKraken. In your own encounters with Johnny Law, feel free to use other such acceptable monikers as “Pat McGroin” and “Ben Dover.”

• The series’ latest formal coup is that impressive reverse-tracking shot through the hallway littered with bodies, surveying the wreckage of the fight that came before. It even manages to culminate with an out-of-nowhere visual gag, as the shot concludes with an all-but-unharmed Van Der Tunt, massaging her own boob in a state of postcoital bliss.

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